Working at the History Centre a little bit like being a Timelord… with access to the archives you can be transported through time and space.
The strong-rooms are our very own Tardis (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) since despite their relatively small footprint they contain around eight miles of archives.
Over the last two months I have been joined in my “travels” by GCSE and A-level students who have been on work experience at the History Centre.
The first port of call for the youngsters as they ventured into the strong-rooms was 12th century Messina in Sicily. One of the earliest documents in the Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is a letter (with Great Seal attached) from Richard I – Richard the Lionheart – confirming a gift of land to Stanley Abbey (WSA 473/34PC).
It is dated 3rd April 1191 and was sent by Richard from Sicily just days before he set sail with a fleet of ships to the Holy Land. (He had set out in 1190 to join the Third Crusade.) The letter came at a busy time for Richard who was not only on crusade but was about to be married to Berengaria of Navarre who had made her own epic journey across Europe with Richard’s mother Eleanor of Aquitaine to be with her future husband.
The students’ introduction to the archives continued with a jump to the Tudor period via a grant of arms, followed by a brief stop in restoration England and a splendid portrait of Charles II on an illuminated document.
With each new group of students I set myself and the students the challenge of searching our collections for documents relevant to their particular GCSE and A-level courses. The two world wars, the Cold War, and the Tudors are well travelled historical paths but what of 19th century China and Japan or American history?
At A-level, students at the end of Year 12 are making decisions about coursework so a placement at the History Centre was an ideal opportunity to begin their research. We had students who were looking at the American civil rights movement, antisemitism in England during the 19th and 20th centuries, the opium wars in 19th century China and western influence on 19th century Japan and the demise of the Samurai tradition.
In our pursuit of the American civil rights movement we took a detour into the history of the fledgling United States of America. The archive has a number of collections that, through letters and other documents, connect Wiltshire with the English colonies in the Americas, the war of independence and the American civil war and trade with the USA.
We were all rather excited to be handling two particular documents signed by James Madison and John Quincy Adams who served as the 4th and 6th presidents of the USA. Both documents (WSA 1498/4) were passports for Thomas Shorthouse who became an American citizen in 1797. The Shorthouse family lived at Little Clarendon, Dinton and the passports, letters from Philadelphia and citizenship document for Thomas Shorthouse are part of the family papers (WSA 1498/1-6).
The citizenship document was drawn up in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and instructs Thomas to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever and particularly the allegiance to the King of Great Britain to whom he was heretofore a subject.”
The passports show that Thomas maintained his connections with his family in Britain. The first was signed by James Madison, as Secretary of State, in Washington on 27th September, 1805. Madison, one of the founding fathers of the USA, became President in 1809 and later became known as the ‘father of the constitution’.
In 1815, Thomas Shorthouse received a second passport, this time signed by John Quincy Adams who was then the United States Envoy in London. Adams went on to be the 6th President in 1825.
We could have spent all our time in North America reading letters and documents about rebellion in the colonies, American Independence, the civil war and abolition of slavery, but other countries beckoned.
Our search for documents relating to the Opium Wars yielded instant and fascinating results in the Public and State papers of Sidney Herbert (1810-1861), Baron Herbert of Lea, who from 1841 to 1860 was successively Secretary to the Admiralty, Secretary of War and then Secretary of State for War.
His papers are part of Wilton House and Estate archive and are a fascinating insight into 19th century British political and military history. The journey into this immense collection was brief but rewarding as we discovered a wonderful document that summarised the issues surrounding the opium trade (“Neglect of Government to take steps as to opium trade”, WSA 2057/F8/I/G/1), and several letters and despatches describing the taking of the Peiho Forts – a joint British and French military action in China in the 1860s (WSA 20157/F8/V/B/192ee).
From China in the 19th century we ventured into the 20th century and a world at war.
Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country. Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here. It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.
Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort. The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD. It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway. Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury. It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit). In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers. Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.
The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides. Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury. However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.
The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior. Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.
Have you ever thought about investigating the history of your community but aren’t sure where to start? Why not organise a Reunion! This is something I first started in Horningsham in 1995 and 23 years later we are still going strong! It first began in 1994 when I wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of the rebuilding of our church. We held a special service with refreshments afterwards and it was a great success. Someone then had the idea of tracing as many people as we could find who had been baptised in the church, to invite them to a Reunion. Everyone who came enjoyed it so much that they asked if we could do it again the following year, when we chose marriage as our theme………
There are some key factors that will guarantee success. Food and drink is always a good ice breaker, so try and offer some nice treats to your guests. If they are travelling a long way it is good to offer lunch if you can. My experience is that once people sit down with friends over lunch, they are very happy to just sit and chat.
Old photographs are always popular and are a good way of stimulating conversation and memories. This will also encourage people to search through their own collections and find you something for next year. My best find was the year that I was given a photograph of the Royal School at Bath, who were evacuated to Longleat House during WWII. I couldn’t believe my luck and knew immediately that I had my theme for the next year (2008). Many villagers were on the picture as staff who helped look after the girls and I was put in touch with some former pupils who were still living locally and who offered to share their memories with me. This proved to be one of our most successful events.
You will be surprised by how quickly your invitation list grows. Many times I was asked ‘have you contacted my cousin/auntie/school friend….’ and for many years the number of people attending was over 60. Every year I think of a theme and put up a display of photographs in the church, for people to look at before the service. If you tell people what the theme will be in their invitation, someone is sure to offer you some photographs. Photos with people or houses are the most popular; everyone likes to see a wedding photo or the house they grew up in. The friends who come to the Horningsham reunion have been so generous over the years that in 2000 I had enough material to publish a book for the millennium.
In 1841, less than two years after the formation of the Wiltshire Police Force, the residents of Wiltshire decided that it was an unnecessary expense and petitioned the Magistrates, asking nothing less than its abolition.
In April 1839 Wiltshire Magistrates received a letter from the Government Home Department asking their views on setting up “a body of Constables appointed by the Magistrates, paid out of the County rate, and disposable at any point of the Shire, where their service might be require, would be desirable, as providing in the most efficient manner for the security of person and property; and the constant preservation of the public peace”.
Wiltshire was in favour and in August 1839 the County Police Act was passed.
On the 13th November 1839 a Wiltshire Quarter Sessions committee was set up to review the new act and on the 13th November 1839 they concluded that not less than 200 Constables, one for every 1,200 persons and a total expenditure of £11,000 per year was needed. There was an amendment opposing the creation of the force, but this was defeated. Thursday 28th November 1839 saw the appointment of Captain Samuel Meredith R.N. as the first Chief Constable of Wiltshire. Gloucestershire appointing theirs on 1st December, with other counties following their lead, making Wiltshire the oldest county force by a few days!
One of the documents in the Wiltshire Constabulary archives held here at the History Centre includes the Wartime Police Control Room Log (F5/270/2) which was used during 1944 and 1945. The Wiltshire Police Control Room was based at Devizes Headquarters and was and still is the central hub of communications for the force. At that time, the Devizes police station was in Bath Road. The new police HQ was built in 1964 and was a considerably larger building.
The log book not only registered downed aircraft, but firing practices, air raid warnings, evacuee arrivals and other war related incidences.
I have looked at two individual incidents which were logged in March and April 1944. Both incidents involved crashed German aircraft, I’ve added extra detail which I have found archived elsewhere. The first incident happened on March 14th 1944.
14/3/1944 2345 hours; initial reports of a plane crash about halfway between Alton Barnes and Devizes reported to Marlborough Police by an Orderly Sergeant at RAF Alton Barnes.
2355 Inspector Shears is dispatched to All Cannings as crash believed to be in vicinity.
15/03/1944 0100 confirmed that a plane, believed to be a German aircraft had crashed in a field adjacent to the canal at All Cannings. The plane had burnt out and bombs were in the field. They were unable to say if occupants were trapped. The RAF was guarding the scene and an Ambulance was en route from Devizes.
0120 Confirmation received that the aircraft was a German one with twin engines, model unknown at this stage. There was no trace of any crew ‘but feared from odour and fierceness of conflagration they have been trapped inside.’
0420 aircraft was identified by flight Lieutenant Rickitto as a J.U.88. (This aircraft a Junkers 88 no. 141152 was part of the Luftwaffe which had blitzed London that night. The crew had had specific orders to bomb Buckingham Palace and Whitehall. The plane had been pursued westerly out of London and experienced engine failure as it reached Wiltshire.)
0710 Major Hailey US forces at Tidworth reported that he had a German airman in custody. The prisoner had supplied descriptions of three other crewmen who had bailed out at the same time. RAF Lieutenant Ricketts (Interrogation Officer) requested that the prisoner be brought to Devizes Police Station for interrogation.
Two other German crew members were detained; one in Patney and the other in Bulford. Both were taken into custody in Devizes.
16/3/1944 1745 the body of the missing airman, the last of the crew, was found in a field in Patney, about 1 and a half miles from the crash scene. A parachute was attached to the body. (German Officer Unteroffizier Hans Schonleitner was buried at Haycombe Cemetery in Bath- local schoolchildren had found his body with a partially opened parachute).
There is a full narrative of that fateful flight on http://indianamilitary.org/ by the surviving tailgunner on board, Gerhard Grunewald (he was subsequently interred as a POW in America).
In archives, as in everything else, some jobs take longer than others. The archivists at the History Centre can generally list small or medium sized deposits of documents within a few weeks or months of receiving them, but larger collections may take years, or even decades, to catalogue fully. A catalogue I recently completed was a case in point.
Forty years ago, archivists from the Record Office (then based in Trowbridge) collected a large number of clients’ papers from the offices of the Calne solicitors, Spackman, Dale and Hood. Once safely in the record office, they were placed in acid-free boxes (forty-eight in all) and allocated the collection number 1409. The boxes remained on the strongroom shelves, safe and secure but not listed. Eventually, in 2003, it was decided that I would devote my time (when not on public duty or attending to more urgent priorities) to sorting and listing the Spackman, Dale and Hood collection. My listing gradually proceeded, box by box, over several years. By 2007, when our office relocated from Trowbridge to Chippenham, about three-quarters of the work was done. Increasing public duties and other urgent matters in our new building meant that work on collection 1409 was again shelved for several years. Finally, two years ago, I completed listing the last couple of boxes, and then handed the collection over to my strongroom colleagues, who numbered and packaged each item. This took the greater part of another year. I then word-processed the lengthy catalogue and added it to our online catalogue.
So, what have we ended up with, after all that effort? A slimmed-down collection, reduced from 48 to 35 boxes, after weeding out the rubbish, rough copies, drafts and duplicate documents. But still a large collection – one thousand separate items, listed in detail in a 125 page catalogue (available in hard copy at the History Centre and on our online catalogue). As one might expect, a large proportion of the collection concerns Calne people and properties, and those of the neighbouring area. The two largest categories are sale particulars (the greater part dealing with Calne properties between the 1880s and the 1970s) and title deeds and associated conveyancing papers. Title deeds are useful to both family and local historians. To take one example, a bundle of deeds (1409/16/54) relating to a house in Calne Church Street, “commanding one of the best positions in the town”, prove that at various times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the building was occupied by a shoemaker, a baker, a seedsman, and C. & T. Harris, Ltd., as well as being used as the library of the Calne Literary Institution and, later, as an Oddfellows lodge. There is also a series of 44 eighteenth century leases of properties in Castle Combe; the tenant of an enclosed three-acre field at Thorn Grove was given “liberty to set up cribs for sheep on Castle Combe fair day”, in 1779 (1409/16/259/33).
Other contents of the collection are more unusual. For instance, there is some correspondence (1409/10/5) concerning applications for midwives’ certificates by Mrs Sarah Gaby of Sandy Lane and Mrs Elizabeth Ponting of Cherhill, 1904-1905.